Foundation for our Straw Bale Home

Homestead

Wow y’all! I have not been keeping up with sharing all of the work we’ve been doing on the Straw Bale build. Things are busssssy, but I’m making an effort to document some of this to share/educate/enliven and because I value being able to look back on things.

The month of June included a lot of work on the foundation. You saw us get a backhoe in to dig and fill the trench. And I didn’t record any of the form building, though @birdsinparadise documented some of it when they visited.

It was so awesome that they could come & help us with the foundation — and my mom helped clean and organize our entire outdoor kitchen (who’s amazing? she is!!) Not only were we making great memories together and we’ll always remember them as being a part of the house build, but they’re really brilliant and skilled people. They used to own a home building company and my dad spent many hours on site (+ he’s a perfectionist who can build nearly anything!) and my mom was the accountant for said home building company and did all of the estimating for the builds… perfect duo to step in as we’re wrapping our minds around the build.

As I mentioned above, my dad is a perfectionist “over-builder” and that’s exactly what we wanted while making the foundation. In fact, we had a friend of ours who had worked in concrete for 8 years come over and inspect the forms before the concrete & pump trucks came Friday June 28, 2019, and he was impressed with the forms saying that they were overbuilt. The pump truck operator said the same thing! We had no blowouts and everything went smoothly (except Ini misestimated the amount of concrete to have delivered so we had to hand mix a section.) All in all – it went really well.

Here are some pics from the day:

We had to get a pump truck as the cement truck couldn’t fit around our site. We couldn’t believe how large the pump truck was – absolutely incredible! When it got going the work happened so quickly!
Ini directing the nozzle into the forms.

We had a good crew of local friends including Petey & Sumner from Eastwind (an income sharing community near us), Chris & Gene (neighbors from 10 min away), Michelle (neighbor 20 min away) and Sarah (a friend we recently met at the Baker Creek Festival who is 3 weeks away from having a baby!). It was a great crew!
Petey & Sumner banging the sides of forms to get the air bubbles out of the concrete.

Gene especially had a lot of concrete experience under his belt and he and Chris smoothed off the tops as we went along.
The little section to Chris’ right was the gap between our need and what Ini estimated! Some of the trench was deeper than he thought it would be and that’s why he thinks his estimate was off (even though he ordered more than he thought we’d need.)
We eeked out the last bits in the pump truck (that the pump can’t access) and filled up the trench by hand, but it still wasn’t enough. Ini, Petey and Sumner mixed some concrete by hand after Michelle and I went to town to get some. Not ideal, but it worked!

Today Ini is taking off the forms (we’ve been lightly misting it for the past day and a half). It’s been super hot – like in the 90s so that concrete is drying and curing quickly. So far what he’s taken off looks great!

I have a video of the process that I’ll compile and upload as well and we’ll do our best to blog about the process as it unfolds.

It feels like such a big hurdle to be finished with the foundation. This was a new step for us and a lot of the steps to come are things we’ve done before. We’ll be calling the community in for help along the way and we’re super excited to be finished with the foundation! Onward <3

Perennial Food in the High Tunnel: Planting Figs

Homestead

Here in the Ozarks of Missouri we’re on the USDA zone map as 6b. Who knows, we may be zone 7a soon! These zones depict climate trends like the date of first and last frost and mean temperatures throughout the year.

When choosing perennial plants to grow, one looks at these trends to see if a plant will thrive within a given climate. With High Tunnels (especially if they’re heated or double walled), we have the opportunity to bend these zones a bit and extend the season or encourage the growth of plants that usually wouldn’t thrive here.

One such plant that is a common one for High Tunnels, Greenhouses and Microclimates is the Fig.

Common figs belong to Moracea family which also includes mulberries and Osage orange.

They are part of the very large Ficus genus which includes thousands of species that grow all around the warmer parts of the world. Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years and have captivated human interest with their scrumptious fruits and lush foliage.

Figs have low water and nutritional requirement, are not bothered by many (or any) pests and love heat so they are a great choice for our high tunnel. Many of the edible figs are hardy to zone 7 and above, meaning they won’t reliably bear fruit in our climate.

On our homestead, we’ve decided to allot the fig ample room within our High Tunnel to encourage fruiting. Usually figs “die back” each year (their roots are still alive, but all above ground growth dies. When this happens, we lose a lot of fruiting opportunities as the plant has to spend its energy producing vegetative growth as well. However, in a High Tunnel the fig doesn’t die back and we get to start with a larger plant each season.

To prepare the soil, we first dug and removed rocks. We then grew a spring cover crop of oats and amended with ashes and lime. We harvested the oats at the milky stage for a delightful nervine tonic and then cut the straw down to stubble to cover the bed- a great mulch layer! We will add some kelp and a little manure before laying on the mulch even more heavily.

We are choosing to focus on perennials in the high tunnel for a few reasons.

First, we want to grow something we otherwise couldn’t, not just get a jump start on heat-loving annuals. Secondly, pests can easily build up in an artificial environment such as a high tunnel, particularly if similar crops are grown year after year. Figs are not susceptible to the most common garden pest. Lastly, we also didn’t want a lot of maintenance and upkeep with the high tunnel so figs it is!

The Romans grew figs in pits to constrict the roots and encourage fruiting over foliage.

These were rock or concrete pits or trenches roughly 2 feet cubed. This bodes well for us because our soils are shallow and we have plenty of rocks, not to mention low fertility. We will boost Phosphorus and Potassium as we are low in these minerals but take it easy on Nitrogen to avoid excessive leaf growth.

We’re excited to take our perennial vision to the high tunnel and are looking forward to a delicious variety of figs in years to come.

Harvest Times in the Garden

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This a busy time of year in the gardens and at our homestead, Mountain Jewel. The house build is taking up a lot of our time and we’re so thankful to have my parents here (@birdsinparadise) helping with the build!

Luckily we have a lot of fresh fruits & veggies to share with them and cocreate some awesome meals. Zucchini, purslane and cucumbers, anyone?

Above you can see a sweet little handful of berries. With so much hard work put into the homestead year after year, eating the fruits of our labor is extraordinarily satisfying and promising.

Pictured are some black raspberries, juneberries and goumi berries. We are especially in love with these Red Gem goumi berries. I ate a few too many at their astringent stage (I was so excited!) and have learned that they’re at they’re best when they’re nearly falling off the vine!

One plant that we have in abundance is Purslane! I’m so thankful to have such an adventurous mom who I can give something a little atypical (to the modern diet) and she whips up something amazing!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) aka Verdelagos in spanish, is an incredibly nutrionally rich plant that boasts Omega 3s and ALAs (only found in fish!) . It grows like a weed (and as a weed) which causes many people to skip over it, but it’s one of the most heat tolerant — read: heat thriving — crops available. It grows faster than malabar spinach and I think it’s tastier.

This is all a part of our effort to thrive while seeing what is available. To me, this is aligning with a permaculture lifestyle.

My amazing mom made a DELICIOUS pesto pasta using purslane!

Check it out!

Here she is also making a special treat that Luci would love to get her hands on. This is just a teaser – I’ll let her reveal what we were eating that night!!

Harvest Begins

It’s also that time of year that the harvests are really starting to churn out!

Pictured is our first tomato (((almost))) ripe! We love snacking on fresh tomatoes and cannot wait! Any day now.. Then I’m sure will be eating them with nearly every meal.

One thing we are already having overwhelming amounts of is cucumbers and zucchinis — and it’s only the first week of harvests. We planted 30 cucumber plants (!?!!) so this year we’re basically going to be giving them away to friends and neighbors constantly. Yesterday we made 4 quarts of lacto fermented cucumbers with the harvest you see above.

What are you favorite ways to eat cucumbers? We eat them straight off the vine, love a good vinegar cuc salad, sliced up, and of course pickles!

Pictured above with my hand on it is the Bolivian “cucumber”, Achocha. These seeds were gifted to us at the Baker Creek Spring Planting Fest and we’re excited to try them out. After weeding the bed, I put them in the shade (of a goumi & Wild False Indigo). I also put in some horehound (seed started by a friend) and Basil (Emily variety).

Man I love growing all the green things!!

How does your garden grow? Look forward to sharing little snipits all summer long and of course keeping y’all updated on the house build!

Paw Paw Grafting: Photo Log

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Paws paws have quickly become near and dear to us at Mountain Jewel.

Upon moving to the Ozarks, we were so excited to find oodles of wild paw paws on and near our property. Last fall we harvest a lush bounty of wild fruit. It’s safe to saw were fanatical about paw paws!

The paw paws on our homestead haven’t set fruit in the past few years and this may have to do with low genetic diversity. 2 or more varieties are best for pollination. Grafting selected cultivars onto wild rootstock will increase productivity and boost diversity.

The distinguished Paw Paw, Asimina triloba. A wild specimen on our land

As with all our permaculture endeavors we seek to witness and observe the natural processes before intervening. After seeing heavy fruit set on a nearby patch, and discovering more and more patches on our land, we wanted decided to take action and marry select paw paw genetics onto our wild patches.

Tools of the trade:

Here you see the complete grafting kit. We made a video of the process & share it on our  blog likely tomorrow. Pictured: paw paw scions (Mango, Wells, Prolific, NC-1 & Overlease varieties), sharp pruning saw, secateurs, masking tape, grafting film, fresh utility blade, & a pen 🙂

Sharp blade cutting the Paw Paw at an angle so water doesn’t settle on the base.

In the past we’ve attempted whip and tongue but had no success. I’ve since learned the importance of wrapping the scion with grafting film to maintain moisture. On past grafts, the scions dried out before leafing out. Since visiting a university fruit station and seeking out information online, I’ve honed in on a few tidbits that will hopefully increase our success. 

Scion cut at an angle on the base (with at least two buds remaining) which will go into the base.
Scion placed “just so” into the Cambium of the wild paw paw root stalk. This is a Bark Inlay Graft.

We are choosing to focus on the bark inlay graft. This comes recommended from the paw paw master himself Neil Peterson. The advantages are numerous. Firstly scion and rootstock don’t need to match and large diameter stock can be used. The cuts are simple and a strong union can be ensured with tape. Lastly, vigorous growth results from using established trees. 

Mango variety scion inserted and wrapped. Watch for tomorrow’s video to see this done live with more explanation.

We are pleased to be in connection to an ever evolving landscape and all the skills associated with managing and increasing productivity of the landscape. Hopeful for a lifelong horticulture journey and increasing abundance.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s How To Vid! 

Putting Up Hay in the Ozarks

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When the honeysuckle flowers are in bloom (divine smells in the air!) and the garden really starts to fill out, that’s usually an indicator of the first opportunity to put up hay.

Our friends over at Elixir Farm have 100% organic, grass fed cows that range over their beautiful pasture. It’s a complete cow paradise! They eat of the beautiful grasses all year, but need some supplemental feed come winter.

Each Spring we receive the summons to come help them. Some years the crew is scant and the work feels crazy-hard, but luckily this year a band of communards from nearby East Wind Community came out and helped. Between the 11 of us, it was actually pretty easy (and fun) work.

Stacking the hay in the old (and beautiful barn)

As we have done this 3-4 summers in a row, we kind of know the ropes, so we were in partial leadership positions. Ini is a boss at stacking the hay on the trailer — check out how tall/efficient this load is! It really is a true art, especially because this rig has to make it up and down some bumpy holler roads.

It’s always an incredibly dirty/dusty/itchy job. This year I finally got smart and covered my arms and legs with long sleeves and pants. Wore my bandana for when we put up the hay in the barn (it gets hard to breathe otherwise, with all the particles!). And also had on a large sunhat and sunglasses. My only “weak spot” was wearing open toed shoes, I suppose, but my Chacos are my summer mainstay and are super easy to clean.

After haying for a few hours, it is almost a necessity to jump in the cool river. We strip off our clothes and dive in. The current is strong these days so if you venture out to the middle, you spend all of your energy staying in place. The gorgeous waters of the Ozarks are what drew us here and definitely are a huge boon to staying 🙂

And of course, going to the creek for a dip is always full of surprises. One of our friends caught a baby turtle as it was swimming by.

And then we headed back into the fields to pick up the rest of the hay. As you can see, there’s more for him to cut, but that has to wait for another day as rain was in the forecast! Haying is always tricky business as you’re not only fighting the coordination of workers all arriving at moment’s notice, but also scheduling around the rains.

After the final gathering, it was back to putting hay in the barn. We only brought 2 loads on this day. In previous years (with less people), we’ve put up 7 or more loads. It can be a long and strenuous day!

Luckily Elixir Farm is a place of abundance, beauty and absolutely tasty meals. We feasted on the porch and enjoyed our time together. This was definitely a fun haying experience.

Stacking Functions: Trusses as Concrete Forms

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As the house progresses steadily, it’s pretty amazing to realize that every step we’re taking is bringing us one step closer to realizing our dreams. It’s all of the little details which add up to become a house.

Yesterday and today we have been working steadily on building the parallel chord trusses, which will double as concrete forms.

Here is an example of the parallel chord truss we are building. This example is actually using pallet wood, but we are using dimensional pine lumber from our nearby sawmill. Image from Mother Earth News.

We’re at the beginning of getting our systems down and work site set up. We’ve chosen a spot with great morning-midday shade, but the afternoon can be brutal. Most days we are getting high humidity and 80-85 degree sunny weather. This means the sweat is dripping and the sawdust is sticking to our legs!

I’ve set up making the cuts for the diagonal pieces (“webs” in the diagram above) and 6 foot lengths and Ini is putting them together. Each truss takes 12 diagonal lengths and so I’ve taken to organizing my cuts into buckets for easy delivery.

Meanwhile, Ini has been hammering the trusses together. (Note my choked up hammer grip due to wrist fatigue, he says…)

This method of truss building is simple, albeit labor intensive and also uses small dimensional lumber (rough cut 1x4s in this case). As noted in the above diagram, this method can make great use of pallet wood, a ubiquitous offshoot of our consumptive culture. Furthermore, the style of truss will allow us to easily span 16 feet and maintain a cathedral ceiling while providing a 12″ deep cavity which will be filled with blown in cellulose for an R value of 36. Add some dead air space and radiant barrier and we should be achieving closer to R 50.

The simple geometry involved in truss building relies on the inherent strength of triangles. By using this simple principle, we can create a unit that is much stronger than the sum of its parts and efficiently utilize wood.

As always we are seeking to maximize outputs and minimize input. This is at the core of Permaculture. In this case we are stacking functions of using these trusses as concrete forms when we pour our stem wall. We’ll add plywood and then oil it so the concrete doesn’t stick. Once the concrete is set, we will remove formwork and install as roof assembly. It might seem weird that we’re building a roof before even starting on the wall, but there is a method to our madness…

Making Home

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It has been quite a journey since we’ve moved onto the 18 acres we have been tending for the past three and half years. Some of the biggest changes are taking place as we’re endeavoring to build ourselves a home. It seems like every lesson, hardship and observation has led us to this point and we’re ready to dive in.

The phrase “building a house” does not begin to describe the extremely large undertaking involved in such a process. A house is not the sum of parts (lumber, stone, insulation etc..), but rather an extension of the humans that inhabit it. Many natural building enthusiasts refer to the house as a thirds skin (the second being our clothing). Making home does entail building a house, but extends beyond the physical details and includes how the building / inhabitant integrate into the landscape.

In line with our ethics, we have yet to take a drastic approach to changing the landscape. Small and slow has been our way.

For years we both envisioned building our own natural own, both independently and then in partnership. The dreaming, hands-on time, designing, scheming, considering, researching, sourcing, planning and sketching phases have brought us to a point where we are calling in BIG changes. With these changes also come tough decisions. In preparation for this we have walked throughout our land countless times at different seasons, observed the patterns of the sun and moon and taken notes on plant communities and soil conditions. Now that we’ve settled on a location, we are ready to break ground.

Inviting large equipment onto our land has been a difficult decision to make. We dig all the excavation for all prior buildings by hand, and value this low impact method. It is accessible, sustainable and free. In considering the scale and scope of this build and the importance of a solid foundation systems and proper drainage we called around and found the best heavy equipment operator in the area.

Neither of us have endeavored such an undertaking and it is a little nerve racking to see it beginning.

We both love to natural building; the materials, the process and of course the final result. Some of the most comfortable human spaces we’ve inhabited have been build in alignment with the Earth from site selection, materials used to the construction process. But what does it look like for us to be guiding a major building process?

This past week we’ve seen what 20 hours of heavy equipment can get done. We said goodbye to a beautiful red oak (while it was in decline, it’s still hard to kill such a large tree). We’re been sick to our stomachs at the destruction we’ve seen as the house site is being prepared. Overwhelmed, stressed, nervous… Yes and also elated and joyful. We are making the biggest changes to the landscape yet, and while we feel it’s warranted to ensure our house stands strong as long as possible (hopefully well over 100 years) it’s still a lot to be responsible for.

Items we put into the foundation: old boots to make the place feel like home immediately and quartz crystals wren dug in arkansas for a crystal grid to amplify intentions.

This is just the first step, and as the equipments operator mentioned as we rolled off site late last Friday evening, “Now the hard work begins”. In some ways I agree as from now on it will be almost exclusively hand labor, but there’s also a joy and connection to the place and materials that heavy equipment does not afford.

Mountain Jewel Goes to Baker Creek

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This past weekend was the annual Baker Creek spring planting festival and it happened to be our first outreach/vending event. We put a lot into it and wanted to share a little of our experience.

Baker Creek is a large heirloom seed company that began as a Jere Gettle’s passion for gardening and has since grown into a well-known company that ships rare and heirloom seeds worldwide.

Every year 10 000 people attend the festival in Mansfield MO (an hour away from us) to connect around all things gardening and Earth based. We were honored to have a booth as part of the Rural Renaissance tent, a group focused on local community and permaculture.

We both knew this was going to be a big event, and we did all we could to prepare for it.

Everything from preparing plants for sale, designing and printing business cards, making signs and informational material and getting ready for sales. We formed a of lot of new paths and our next event wont be quite so much ground work. This was the first time we’d show up in public sphere in a big way and we wanted to represent what we’re all about; a perennial Earth based lifestyle.

Plant rack of berries, lavender and goldenseal for sale.

More than selling items, this event was all about outreach.

We made some great connections and gained insights into where people’s interests lie and what direction to head. We were offering a number of Rubus species, goldenseal plants, tinctures, books, worm kits and germinated paw paw seeds. There was A LOT of talking and it took us a few days to recover.

Mountain Jewel has been waiting to be born in both of us for quite a while.

The past few years we have been focused on establishing our homestead infrastructure, but now another layer is unfolding. This represents a phase where we touch the lives of others through connection, inspiration and empowerment.

We believe in what we’re doing and we want to share that with others. The vision for a bioregional permaculture nursery is in the nascent stages and we are starting to gather interest for educational and community involvement opportunities for this year’s straw bale house build.

Ini giving a talk on Sprouting

What this event shows us is the importance of showing up. We were unsure weather we were prepared enough, but soon realized that we had been preparing for this for years. Every work exchange opportunity, workshop, book, experiment and curiosity led us to this place. We have a true passion and desire to share the benefits of permaculture and living in connection with the earth.

Rural Renaissance Community members placing their locations within the Ozark Bioregion map

We were well received and had some very supportive responses.

Overall the event was a success and after recovering we are looking forward to future events including workshops and work parties on our land! We’re all in it together and it’s at events like this where we can come together and really feel that. We extend our gratitude to all of the organizers who made this event possible 🙂

David Haenke talking about putting the eco back in economics.

Wider Circles – Community Connections & Remembering the Journey Here

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Last night Ini and I walked around the homestead and I’m not sure what it was, but we started saying Remember when…

Prepping signage and plants to bring with us to the festival

Remember when..

This was just a scrubby field with a huge oak and hickory in it?
When our neighbor came up one time with his discer and we walked behind it picking up rocks (which did nothing…) When you got naked and started pulling out what we thought was poison ivy, but ended up being aromatic sumac and I screamed when it touched your butt.

Remember that winter we slept outside when we came back after traveling and our yurt was moldy.. How we started off without power and carried water up the hill from our spring…

When we were just talking about getting a high tunnel.. starting a pond.. building the solar shed. Remember year after year when we dug beds and half of the soil was rocks..

Remember when we met at OUR ecovillage and sat by a fire one night realizing how closely our dreams aligned and decided to try it together…

All of the hard work, literal blood, sweat and tears that have gone into this…

Wider Circles

It’s all coming together in another turning of the revolution as we reach out into the community to share ourselves and some of the fruitions of the homestead.

send ya straight to our instagram!
I got a stamp! Business cards

In making the final preparations to vend this weekend, we’re seeing just how much we’ve set into motion and how we can bridge with the community. It’s extraordinarily exciting!

Thanks for being a part of the journey!

Artificial “Asimina-lation”: Pollinating the Paw Paw, N. America’s Largest Fruit

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As the redbud blossoms fade and dogwood flowers makes their appearance, the mighty paw paw flowers waltz their way to center stage in the Ozark woodlands.

These luscious drooping maroon blossoms are sultry in their demeanor, but yet perhaps a little shy…

The paw paw has fast become a very dear tree to us, and we’re excited to get a little more intimate with some specimens this spring.

Immature Paw Paw Flower on the left, Mature on the right

Almost all fruit needs to pollinated to set fruit.

There are a few exceptions such as certain persimmons, which can set fruit parthenocarpically which results in seedless fruit. The same can be said about seedless watermelons. All other fruit require male and female sex organs to intermingle in order to produce fruit. While some trees are self-fertile (meaning one tree can pollinate itself), others require cross-pollination.

Generally fruits are either wind or insect pollinated.

The scope of fruit pollination is far beyond this article. Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are pollinated by insects and often need a little help with setting fruit. Being pollinated by flies and carrion beetles and having female organs that are receptive before the male organs shed pollen, proper pollination (and therefore fruit set) can be tricky.

Some old timers swear by hanging rotting meat to attract pollinators, but hand pollination seems like a more savory choice for most.

The paw paw flowers are known as perfect; meaning they contain both male and female reproductive parts.

The stigma (receptive female part) matures before the male anthers shed its pollen. Here lies the conundrum. To make things even more nuanced, the pollen must almost always (there are some exceptions) come from a different genetic source to ensure proper pollination. This is where is gets a bit frisky.

Today we are harvesting some paw paw pollen from the flowers of several different trees. Paw paws fruit best if cross-pollinated, that is by receiving pollen from another tree. It is recommended to plant at least 3 varieties for proper pollination, so we will be roaming the woods near us and collecting pollen in hopes of increasing fruit set on wild paw paws on our land. Our cultivated varieties have only 1 or two flowers so far.

Our goal is to transfer the male pollen to a clean and dry container and then transfer it to the female stigma. The pollen is ripe when the ball of anthers is brownish and sheds readily. The stigma is ready when the tips of the pistil are green, sticky and glossy. At this time the anthers ball is firm and light yellow to greenish in color.

Once we have collected enough pollen we will use a delicate brush and simply apply pollen to receptive stigmas.

This is a delicate task, but one that we feel is well worth the effort. For a tree that has few to no pests, does not require pruning in almost all cases and produces such a wonderful fruit, hand pollination seems a small price to pay.

Many of the larger scale growers, including the Kentucky State research facility report that pollination isn’t a problem.

Perhaps this is due to the large volume of flowers that creates a habitat for pollinators. The head of the KSU paw paw research team Sheri Crabtree, says that while hand pollination is the best option for optimum fruit set (as opposed to hanging rotting meat), she and her team say it isn’t needed in their paw paw test plots and orchards.

Playing sexy time with trees is fun, and hopefully will pay off in the form of scrumptious fruits in late summer. Artificial “asimina-lation” is a great way to connect with nature in a productive and intimate way.

Sources:

Paw Paw Fruit Facts

PAWPAW – A “TROPICAL” FRUIT FOR TEMPERATE CLIMATES